Penny Drue Baird is a seasoned, pragmatic, and extremely hard-working designer who seems to know herself and her own thinking very well indeed. “What I think my job is, is to make people happy,” she said—and most of the successful designers we have interviewed are similarly clear-eyed about accepting that this is a service industry. At the HOUSE column we’re even beginning to miss the screamers and hissy-fit dictator-designers … there must be a few still out there, right? Penny does not qualify but — because she has an apartment in Paris and spends every summer in France — she did have some candid things to say about the differences between French and American attitudes to decorating and life in general. She has harnessed this knowledge in order to identify a particular design trend in her latest book: The New French Interior (The Monacelli Press)
Let’s talk about Paris because that’s really an uplifting subject.
I know—if only we were all there right now.
How many years have you had a house there?
Ten. And before that I was in St. Tropez for 15 or 20 years. That was where we settled for the summers, where we felt our hearts were. It was a great place to raise kids for the summer. [People] have this idea that it’s some big party/drinking/wild place but the people who live there have a more Provencal kind of life and it’s very homey, very real.
What’s wrong with the Hamptons?
Well, I luckily have a home in the Hamptons but the Hamptons has become more New York-ish, shall we say, and less country-ish over time. Although in St. Tropez you have the same changes: the little shoemaker gives way to the Gucci store, you have that everywhere I guess in the world now … but the people are still real. When you go to people’s homes for dinner you never think about your outfit or who you’re sitting next to.
I’m not so sure you could go to dinner parties in Paris and not think about your outfit.
Well, I do think that’s pretty true in Paris. In Paris, having given many, many dinner parties and attended many dinner parties, it’s always about the people and the conversation and never really about anything else. It’s about the food but that’s taken for granted because everyone just assumes the food is going to be good and the food is good. That’s really different from New York.
What else is different between a New York dinner party and a dinner party in Paris?
The amount of wine for example that’s used at a French dinner party is four times the amount of wine that’s used here. And there is no end time to the party. On a Monday night you could sit in someone’s house until two o’clock in the morning and no one ever says anything about having to get up. And they all have to get up. They all have kids, they all have jobs. That was the most shocking thing to me.
So there seems to be a certain lack of anxiety, is there?
Yes! You’re saying it better than I am. I had a dinner party here a good ten years ago for the Beaujolais Nouveau, but it was honoring my best Parisian friend. I made this beautiful dinner for them—everything was so done. I had the little wine tags that you use in a wine cellar as the place cards and in France after dinner you go in the living room and have orange juice—so I had the orange juice and everything perfect. And all the people stayed until midnight. And I thought, Thursday night! New York city! Midnight! This is like a total success! And after they left my friend says to me, “Everyone left! How rude!”
How do they do it, this staying on late into the night?
Different values and different ideals. But when I’m here I’m not that different. I have my eye on the clock, getting up early in the morning with the kids. Last night after my book party I went zooming home so that I could make sure my eighth grader did his homework. I didn’t even go out to dinner!
[Lesley] I think you’re putting your finger on lots of interesting differences.
[Sian] Penny has a very complicated life. I know about this.
[Lesley] Oh, tell me about some of the more interesting complications of your life.
I think I have a very normal life for a new millennium woman. I have been married to my husband twenty years. I have three children with him. One is in college, one is about to go and one is still little. I work really hard. I take care of my house. And I try to have a lot of fun if I have any time left over. And sleep. Sleep! I work on a negative time deficit always.
So let’s talk about your work. Sian and I think that interiors are becoming more and more safe and I was wondering if people are becoming more and more scared of being laughed at or judged, especially in this day of everything being available to everyone on the Internet. Would you agree with that?
It’s very interesting for you have that interpretation. I agree with your result but not with the path. I think that people do want to do it safe, I agree one hundred percent but I don’t think that that’s any different from let’s say, people in the eighties when the look was opulent and traditional. It was still safe. It’s sort of the same as fashion. I mean take a Birkin bag for example. Now a Birkin bag is really ubiquitious—it’s not really special anymore.
I always think it’s a mark of insecurity if you’ve got one.
I agree. I even have a Birkin bag from before they were called a Birkin but now, in some ways, I’d like to be a person who didn’t even want to have a Birkin!
You know, I’m going to play devil’s advocate right now and say that by writing about [French] modern now, you are following fashion—if you came out with a book about French traditional, you would be more cutting edge.
But no printing house would want that book. What the book is, is not my saying, “Hey, you should have this new French interior” – It’s, “Hey, this is what people are having now.” Because all of these jobs in this book are from the last three years. They’re my jobs. They’re done! This is a representation of the trend that I feel is in New York at this time.
That’s true. Can you describe it?
Yes. I think what people want, and I think what is interesting in this era of design, is that both young and older people want the same thing—but for different reasons. So young people want to be cool and chic and modern and with-it. They look at their parents’ stuffy old houses with lots of clutter and they want the opposite. So they’re looking at clean lines, monochromatic, pale colors, very often just white—but the wooden pieces are more mid-century and early 20th century Deco pieces that were very high quality. There’s a lot of it around because it’s not that old. And the lines are straight, so it mixes with the modern look. For young people they get an easy way to live and the furniture has some value to it.
And for older people?
For older people, they’re tired of having lived in clutter for such a long time. As we get older we accumulate so much stuff no matter what you do. So they want it pared down and they’re moving into a different stage. So I’m getting it from both age groups but for different reasons.
In your book you say that people [once] wanted to have what Louis XIV wanted to have, in that era, that is. Who do people look up to now, in that way … royalty? Jay-Z?
Well, I don’t think in home décor they’re copying rock stars. I think in the trade most people think that celebrities do not have very good taste. Let’s see … who would we say? There are certain icons, like Gwyneth Paltrow … but I don’t think it’s coming from that.
How about hotels? People seem to be very influenced by glamorous hotels—sometimes I think rooms in private houses increasingly resemble expensive hotel rooms.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that’s a very, very good point.
So the book, it seems is not French as such…
No, this the new French interior for Americans.
So what have you done to “Americanize” the French style?
First of all, French people have a different mentality about home décor. They have a sofa so that you can sit in it and a dining table so that you can dine. They’re not impressing anyone. They’re not showing off to anyone. They’re not making a representation or a statement: This is who I am. They just have the things they like and the things they need.
You’re making Americans sound very insecure.
Well, we’re talking about a particular [American] niche—very affluent people who can have this kind of décor. They get to select what they want. Not everyone can have this. Although I actually think that the range of things available today from catalogs and commercial places is fantastic. Honestly, I could do a room from Costco. I really mean it.
So the French have a sofa you can sit in and a dining table you can dine at—what do the Americans have? A sofa that impresses their friends?
Well, no … people decorate for themselves a lot. But there’s lot of fantasy about how they project themselves or their image or how they want to appear. Sometimes I’ve had to do things, you know like some Bavarian ski chalet in New Jersey, and I think it’s kind of silly but in the end if the people are really happy and they think their home is divine, that’s my job. I have to separate two things—one is the creative designing part and one is what my job is. What I think my job is, is to make people happy.